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You Can Lie, But Only A Little
How sweatshop retailer Shein misjudged the online influence game
A Simple Model of Influencer Endorsements
Imagine that you’re a well-known influencer. Your main source of income comes from sponsorships and product endorsements. You’re able to sell those endorsements and sponsorships because you have an audience that is both large and trusting of your recommendations. And so you make your content (YouTube videos, TikToks, Instagram posts, etc) and most of that content is Brought to you by HelloFresh or perhaps Sponsored by SquareSpace. It’s a cash for influence business.
Things normally go like this: You read some gushing, flattering copy about the quality of HelloFresh’s food and how wonderful and easy they are. HelloFresh gives you money for doing this. Some fraction of your audience will click the link, purchase HelloFresh meals, and make the whole enterprise worth it.
When you say “This is the easiest it’s ever been for me to make fresh meals at home! I’m a satisfied customer myself! I weep uncontrolled tears of ecstatic joy every time the package comes!” does your audience believe that’s literally true? Does it even matter if it’s literally true? Probably not. Your audience has seen you read or write ad copy for dozens of sponsors. They’re aware that you probably don’t actually cook HelloFresh every night and that you are not actually filled with ecstasy every time the HelloFresh delivery arrives. What they do probably expect is that you won’t endorse something that’s genuinely terrible - that HelloFresh won’t taste extremely bad, poison them, or scam them out of money. And since HelloFresh easily passes this standard, life for you as the influencer is good. Your standard is this: You can lie, but only a little.1
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Shein’s Influencer Tour
Shein is a Chinese ‘fast fashion’ retailer. If you’re not familiar with the concept of fast fashion, it’s essentially mass-produced clothing from the developing world using cheap materials at cheap prices. There’s a focus on trends and ultra-fast iteration periods. The clothing is intended to be worn for a few months and then discarded, rather than made to last.
Fast fashion as an industry has come under a huge amount of scrutiny for sweatshop labor practices, environmentally unsustainable practices, and rampant intellectual theft.2 Shein is the ultra-hyper-mega version of fast fashion. Competitors like Zara or H&M might be cycling through tens of thousands of unique products, but Shein is cycling through hundreds of thousands, or even millions. By reputation Shein is the cheapest, makes by far the most unique items, and turns them around the fastest.
They also have a super-sized amount of controversy. Rather than list it all out, I’ll just link to their Wikipedia controversy section, which includes fun sections like ‘Xinjiang Controversy’, ‘Lead Toxicity’, ‘Rampant IP Theft’ and ‘Human Rights Violations involving Slave Labor’. You can easily lose several hours investigating it all.
So what’s a brand to do with so much controversy? Well, Shein is already popular among a certain set of online influencers. Shein hauls3 have been a well-worn video archetype for years. Why not have all these influencers endorse you and say nice things? Even better - why not bring them to a carefully controlled Chinese factory and have them directly rebuke all those supposed controversies?
That’s exactly what Shein did, and that’s where Shein misunderstood the relationship between influencers and their audiences.
You Can Lie, But Only A Little
Shein arranged a tour for several influencers4 to come to China and see Shein’s factories. Well… one very carefully stage-managed factory, the Potemkin village of factories. The influencers ate it up, proclaimed everything was wonderful, and said that people should reject the ‘narrative fed to the US’ about how Shein is bad. The internet predictably dragged these influencers mercilessly. The influencers were forced into video deletions and backtracking and defensive non-apologies.
As is usually the case here, I believe the least interesting part of this story is the ‘Is Shein Evil?’ component. I’m sure Shein has done a lot of unsavory stuff5 en route to fast fashion dominance, but plenty of people are already writing about that. More interesting is why the internet exploded with anger at this particular moment. After all, Shein has a been a prominent retailer among influencers for years!
As an influencer, you’re not expected to be 100% honest with every endorsement you give. If you’re a personal finance influencer and you are sponsored by Charles Schwab retirement accounts, it’s understood that you may not literally have a Charles Schwab account yourself. It might not be literally the best retirement account ever as you’re describing it. But that’s ok as long as Charles Schwab is trustworthy enough. On the other hand, if you’re a mainstream personal finance influencer and you begin touting memecoins and sketchy crypto sites, your audience will be extremely angry.6 You can bend the truth, but not break it. You can lie, but only a little.
Fashion influencers doing simple Shein haul videos are on the correct side of that line. Even if Shein is evil, your audience will forgive you for being a little ignorant of that. They’ll let you ignore the horrible practices, to some extent. What they won’t let you do is actively participate in hiding the horrible things, or in making the propaganda yourself. In terms of Shein’s perceived problematic behavior, these influencers moved from ignorant to complicit. Never cross the line from ignorant to complicit.
There’s also an interesting interplay here between fans and influencers that doesn’t exist in traditional marketing. If Burger King or Shein or Home Depot engages in deceptive marketing, people will be mad. But they won’t usually feel outraged or betrayed, because it’s expected that brand marketing is essentially propaganda. On the other hand, if an influencer personally engages in propaganda on behalf of one of those brands, they risk a much more severe backlash.
Every influencer is a business, an operation that trades audience size and influence and reputation for cash. But they’re also a person, and their power is built on a parasocial connection with their audience. That’s the duality of life as an influencer. If the audience feels an influencer is lying to them or engaging in unethical behavior, they’re going to feel personally betrayed. There’s a form of trust that is now gone. That parasocial relationship can be ruined in a way that a relationship with Home Depot can’t be.
Ultimately that’s the lesson I take from this entire outrage cycle - if you’re an influencer you need to hoard your credibility like gold. When you’re trading your influence for money, you can lie a little bit. You can fudge the truth, exaggerate about your sponsors. Sure, you ‘use NordVPN everyday’, wink wink. You can even sometimes ignore problematic aspects of the companies giving you money. But there is a line. Endorse especially horrible things, or actively participate in the deception, and you’re not just risking your own audience turning on you. You’ll potentially face the wrath of the wider internet as well.
Arguably a similar dynamic exists for politicians - we expect them to exaggerate their policies a little bit, but outright lying is (usually) punished. I also think politicians have more in common with influencers than most people would be comfortable admitting.
Not to mention horrible aesthetics with poor quality merchandise
Videos where you can order dozens of items at time for hundreds of dollars, showing off a giant ‘haul’ of cheap clothing
In a hilarious side note, they called them ‘confidence activists’. I’m guessing due to language barriers they didn’t realize the connotation of the word confidence here.
Although I also think the conversation around sweatshops is genuinely more complicated than most people would like to admit
Speaking here of the audience in aggregate - for every influencer there will always be die hard defenders who ride or die and accept no criticisms as valid